Titus (1999)
d. Julie Taymor

Rape, murder, mutilation and cannibalism—Titus Andronicus contains so many atrocities that some critics have dismissed it as a juvenile gore-fest, unworthy of Shakespeare’s name. Julie Taymor’s Titus reveals that the play’s horrors are matched only by its compassion.

Only the second major screen version of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy (following the BBC’s 1985 production), Taymor’s $25 million feature-film debut is utterly cinematic while demanding a theatrical suspension of belief, and shares the dazzling invention of her opera and theatre work (most famously the Disney stage musical The Lion King). It is closely based on her 1994 off-Broadway Titus Andronicus, and photographs illustrate that the film contains many images originally devised for the stage, notably the central, time-bending concept.

Titus opens with a young boy violently transported from the 1950s-style kitchen where he is bashing together ketchup-smeared action figures to the ruined Coliseum (in fact the Roman amphitheater in Pula, Croatia), where he becomes Young Lucius and watches Anthony Hopkins’s grizzled Titus lead the credits sequence’s stylized victory parade. Horse-drawn chariots and clay-caked centurions, moving like automatons in time to Elliot Goldenthal’s choral processional, are followed by motorbikes and armoured half-tracks, as Taymor establishes that a screenplay retaining Shakespeare’s dialogue and structure will constantly straddle the fifth century and several parts of the 20th.

Saturninus is headquartered in Mussolini’s former government centre and guarded by Blackshirts; Chiron and Demetrius play pool and video games in a dungeon-like den, evoking the “ultra-violence”-fixated thugs of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971); the Goth army wields pump-action shotguns, and when Titus turns chef, Hopkins repeats Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalistic slurp from The Silence of the Lambs. Dante Ferretti’s sets and Milena Canonero’s Academy Award-nominated costumes reference everything from ancient Rome to 1930s Fascism, the jazz age and Grace Kelly glamour, and Goldenthal’s magnificent score combines New York jazz, electro-metal (for Chiron and Demetrius) and varied orchestral themes.

The connection between the play’s ancient horrors and more recent history or cinematic fiction is underlined by Taymor’s expansion of Young Lucius’s role. He is kept in regular view as a mostly silent witness to the horrors, simultaneously the inheritor of his father (Angus MacFadyen) and grandfather’s brutal way of life and, as the Boy from the opening scene, an audience surrogate who views the story with our eyes (director Jane Howell used Young Lucius to comparable effect in the BBC production). All this, as Taymor wrote in her notes for Titus: The Illustrated Screenplay (2000), shows the play “speaking directly to our times; a time whose audience feeds daily on tabloid sex scandals, teenage gang rape, high school gun sprees.”

The comparatively small number of people who saw Titus on its initial theatrical release (despite strong reviews, it grossed just $1.7 million in America) watched an achievement all the more remarkable because of what one might call Titus Andronicus’s “difficulty tariff” within the Shakespeare canon. Taymor fashioned a masterpiece not from an inherently cinematic, fast-paced drama such as Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, but a play that in the theater may seem purely horrific or excessively comic, devoid of emotional or intellectual meaning.

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.